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What Is Lead And How Does It Get In My Water?

By Steve Angersbach

The toxic metal lead as lead bars

This is the second in a continuing series where we’ll take a look at the sources, health effects, and analysis of specific contaminants that we test for at Xperiential Laboratories. This time: lead.

What Is Lead And How Does It Get In My Water?

Lead is a metal that occurs naturally and which has found uses across a large number of industries and products. Lead was widely used historically in plumbing, paints, and as a gasoline additive. In fact, until 1986, lead based solder was the most common type of solder used in residential construction, including those with newer copper pipes. Even today, it is entirely legal for companies to produce plumbing fixtures with lesser amounts of lead in their composition, particularly brass or chrome-plated faucets, and to label those fixtures as “lead free”.

Water is most often contaminated by lead due to corrosion of plumbing or solder containing lead. Unlike some contaminants, lead contamination is possible in both municipal water supplies, what we often think of as “city water”, and private wells.

Is Lead In My Water Harmful?

Exposure to lead in drinking water can cause a litany of negative effects. In adults, lead can cause high blood pressure and kidney disease. Lead is also a suspected carcinogen.

In children, lead is known to cause problems with neurological development. Children exposed to lead tend to have higher rates of learning disabilities and behavioral issues. The harmful effects of lead in infants and children are arguably magnified significantly as compared to that in adults due to the fact that the exposure to this contaminant is occurring at a critical time of rapid development of their brains and bodies and because they proportionately consume a larger amount of water compared to the size of their bodies.

Similar to arsenic, discussed in our recent blog post, lead does not produce a taste or smell so you and your family may be exposed to lead in your drinking water without even knowing it.

The US EPA has established a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for lead in drinking water of 15 parts per billion (ppb). The State of California has established a public health goal of 0.2 ppb for lead in drinking water.

Ideally, there would be no lead at all in drinking water, and while an entirely achievable goal, the prevalence of existing lead water infrastructure makes this a distant goal for some areas.

How Do I Know If I Have Lead In My Water?

The widespread use of lead solder in home construction, combined with lead service lines still in use across many water distribution systems around the country, and an unfortunate lack of information and records as to where lead services lines are located, means that lead contamination of drinking water is one of the most common issues found in customer samples by our laboratory.

At Xperiential Laboratories, we use EPA method 200.8 for the detection and analysis of lead in drinking water. This method uses inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). ICP-MS is the gold standard in trace metals analysis because it is sensitive, precise, and efficient, thereby allowing us to detect even extremely low levels of lead that may be contaminating our customers’ water. Once a sample is received, a small amount of acid is added to it to prepare the sample for analysis, then it rests overnight. The next day, the sample is transferred to a test tube and placed on the instrument and analyzed automatically. Compared to other analytes, lead is relatively easy to analyze by ICP-MS because there is little to no interference which may otherwise obscure the detection of lead. Nonetheless, analysis of lead, just like all contaminants we test for, is conducted with a robust quality control and quality assurance system that we designed to ensure that your results are precise and accurate every sample, every time.

Talk to our scientists about lead in your water or explore our site to learn about testing options


California Environmental Protection Agency. Public Health Goals for Chemicals In Drinking Water: Lead Accessed April 30, 2020

US EPA National Primary Drinking Water Standards Accessed April 30, 2020

Category: Contaminant Spotlight

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